Reality check: Does drinking caffeine really help to cure a headache?

Some say you can cure a headache by drinking caffeine, but is it true? Here's what experts have to say.
Some say you can cure a headache by drinking caffeine, but is it true? Here's what experts have to say. Getty Images

There’s a belief that drinking beverages loaded with caffeine can alleviate headaches. Meanwhile, others believe caffeine is more likely to be a headache trigger.

So which is true?

Actually, according to experts, both statements can be correct.

READ MORE: Is coffee good or bad for your health?

“Caffeine can both improve headaches but it can also trigger them,” says Andrea D’Ambrosio, a registered dietitian with Dietetic Directions. “Caffeine acts as a ‘vasoconstrictor,’ which means that it causes the blood vessels to narrow and restrict blood flow. This can help alleviate the pain of a headache.”

In fact, if up to 200 mg of caffeine is combined with acetaminophen and aspirin, the pain relieving effect is increased by 40 per cent, according to both the National Headache Foundation.

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However, D’Ambrosio adds, caffeine withdrawal can also cause headaches. This often happens when people with high caffeine intake and try to reduce their intake.

Tannins from tea and coffee also have the potential to be triggers for some people, as well as those found in apples and banana, and tannins and sulfites in wine, registered dietitian Tristica Curley of Fueling with Food, says.

Other triggers may include aged cheese, citrus, alcohol and MSG. Chocolate as well has been found to be a trigger for some, a University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine study found.

To avoid headaches, D’Ambrosio says it’s important to focus on meal regularity so that you are balancing your meals with sufficient energy.

This means including high-fibre carbohydrates (like whole grain breads, quinoa, barley and lentils), protein and lots of vegetables.

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“Magnesium deficiency is also associated with headaches,” D’Ambrosio says. “Magnesium acts as a muscle relaxant and is involved in hundreds of biochemical functions.”

READ MORE: Add chocolate to your morning coffee for best results, new study says

Magnesium also impacts the neurotransmitters in the brain, and when levels are low this can contribute to headaches, she adds.

Foods that are rich in magnesium include pumpkin seeds, spinach, beans and chickpeas, for example.

Another thing that may help in avoiding headaches may be to follow a vegan diet, or at least one that limits red meat, Curley suggests.

“This may be due to the fact that meat products have been shown to have inflammatory properties and eliminating these can have an anti-inflammatory effect,” she says. “Some meats and cheeses are high in tyramine, which has been linked to migraines.”

According to the Cleveland Clinic, food additives in certain foods can trigger headaches. Nitrates and nitrites are commonly known to cause them and they can be found in meat products like hot dogs, ham, sausage, bacon, pepperoni and other cured or processed meats.

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